KENOSHA, Wis. – Azusa Pacific has been running cross country for over 40 years and has been a national power for the past 10. And as good as the Cougar men and women of the past had been (20 All-Americans), none of them had ever won an NAIA individual championship.
For a school always knocking on the door but never getting in, Azusa Pacific chose to finally blast through in a rather grand fashion. Junior Aron Rono became the first Cougar ever to stand atop of NAIA cross country, winning the men’s individual championship today with a 23:52 over the 8K course at the 52nd Annual NAIA Cross Country Championship Meet in Kenosha, Wis.
Less than 2 hours later, fellow Cougar junior Jaime Canterbury equaled Rono’s feat and won the NAIA women’s individual title with a school-record 17:10 on the 5K trail.
With the rare sweep of the individual NAIA crowns, Azusa Pacific becomes only the second school in NAIA history to take both the men’s and women’s individual crowns in the same year, joining Adams State College which first accomplished the sweep in 1981.
“Absolutely amazing,” said an ecstatic Preston Grey, Azusa Pacific’s third-year distance coach. “It was in the back of our minds that perhaps we could win both races, but it’s such a difficult accomplishment that we never really talked about it in a public setting.”
There was never much question about Rono’s victory. The Kenyan native led the entire race and claimed his victory more than 30 seconds ahead of second-place Ryan Kienzle of Malone College, who recorded a 24:24. For Rono, it’s his third straight Top 5 finish at the NAIAs and in a sense redeems his third-place showing of last year which was disappointing only because a side stitch slowed him and kept him from the possible crown.
Canterbury, who won All-America recognition at last year’s NAIA meet with an eighth-place showing, put the perfect toping on her outstanding 2007 campaign with the individual crown. In the process, Canterbury obliterated the school record of 17:28 set by 4-time All-American Brianna Carstensen in 2004. In fact, she beat her own personal best by 33 seconds which she recorded on this same course back in September.
“Jaime was strong through the entire race and was even stronger at the end,” said Grey. “The cold weather had no effect on her. She was physically and mentally strong.”
Teammate, GSAC champion and NAIA regional titlist Jacky Kipwambok was clipping at Canterbury’s heels throughout the entire race and finished a strong second with a 17:14, also besting Carstensen’s former school standard. Ironically, Azusa Pacific had just one other runner post a top 5 finish in NAIA cross country history with Carstensen finishing third in 2003 and fourth in 2004. This year, however, Azusa Pacific not only wins the race but captures its first-ever individual runner-up as well.
“To be honest, I didn’t think anyone in the nation had a better 1-2 combo at the top than us,” said Grey. “I was hoping Jaime and Jacky could both be in the top 5. I guess we met our expectations and then some.”
As a team, the Cougar women, who entered the meet ranked No. 3 in the NAIA, finished tied for sixth with Wayland Baptist University (Texas). Both teams scored 244 points. Simon Fraser University (B.C.) won its fifth straight national championship with 99 points. Cedarville (Ohio) College was second with 145 points.
Senior Olivia Richert closed out her fine cross country career as the Cougars’ No. 3 runner, finishing 50th overall with an 18:44.
Following Rono’s runaway victory, the rest of the Cougar men ran in a pack well behind and as a result the pre-meet No. 6-ranked Cougars finished 14th in the men’s team race with 326 points. Sophomore Caleb Mesa was Azusa Pacific’s No. 2 runner, finishing 85th overall with a 26:08.
“There were a lot of solid teams really close,” said Grey of the men’s overall performance. “We competed well, and we were not that far out of seventh or eighth place, around where we were ranked.”
Only 26 seconds separated the Cougars’ 2 through 5 finishers.
Malone won the its second NAIA championship, taking this year’s crown with 59 points. Black Hills State was a distant second with 202.